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extended mind

Do Smartphones Make Us Smarter, Dumber, Or Happier?

So which is it?


  1. Make you lazy and dumb.
  2. Make the world more intelligent by adding massive amounts of new processing power.
  3. Both of the above.
  4. None of the above.

Smartphones have an incredible impact on how we live and communicate. They also illustrate a popular technology maxim: If it can be done, it will be done. In other words, they’re not going away. They’ll grow smaller and stronger and will burrow into our lives in surprising ways. The basic question: are they making humans better or worse?

Smarter or dumber?

Smarter or dumber?

Researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada recently published a paper suggesting that smartphones “supplant thinking”. The researchers suggest that humans are cognitive misers — we conserve our cognitive resources whenever possible. We let other people – or devices – do our thinking for us. We make maximum use of our extended mind. Why use up your brainpower when your extended mind – beyond your brain – can do it for you? (The original Waterloo paper is here. Less technical summaries are here and here).

Though the researchers don’t use Daniel Kahneman’s terminology, there is an interesting correlation to System 1 and System 2. They write that, “…those who think more intuitively and less analytically [i.e. System 1] when given reasoning problems were more likely to rely on their Smartphones (i.e., extended mind) ….” In other words, System 1 thinkers are more likely to offload.

So, we use our phones to offload some of our processing. Is that so bad? We’ve always offloaded work to machines. Thinking is a form of work. Why not offload it and (potentially) reduce our cognitive load and increase our cognitive reserve? We could produce more interesting thoughts if we weren’t tied down with the scut work, couldn’t we?

Clay Shirky was writing in a different context but that’s the essence of his concept of cognitive surplus. Shirky argues that people are increasingly using their free time to produce ideas rather than simply to consume ideas. We’re watching TV less and simultaneously producing more content on the web. Indeed, this website is an example of Shirky’s concept. I produce the website in my spare time. I have more spare time because I’ve offloaded some of my thinking to my extended mind. (Shirky’s book is here).

Shirky assumes that creating is better than consuming. That’s certainly a culturally nuanced assumption, but it’s one that I happen to agree with. If it’s true, we should work to increase the intelligence of the devices that surround us. We can offload more menial tasks and think more creatively and collaboratively. That will help us invent more intelligent devices and expand our extended mind. It’s a virtuous circle.

But will we really think more effectively by offloading work to our extended mind? Or, will we forevermore watch reruns of The Simpsons?

I’m not sure which way we’ll go, but here’s how I’m using my smartphone to improve my life. Like many people, I consult my phone almost compulsively. I’ve taught myself to smile for at least ten seconds each time I do. My phone reminds me to smile. I’m not sure if that’s leading me to higher thinking or not. But it certainly brightens my mood.

Aristotle, Cyberpunk, and Extended Minds

How far does it go?

How far does it go?

Aristotle argued against teaching people to read. If we can store our memories externally, he argued, we won’t need to store them internally, and that would be a tragic loss. We’ll stop training our brains. We’ll forget how to remember.

Aristotle was right, of course. Except for a few “memory athletes”, we no longer train our brains to remember. And our plastic brains may well have changed because of it. The brain of a Greek orator, trained in advanced memory techniques, was probably structurally different from our modern brains. What we learn (or don’t learn) shapes our physical brains.

Becoming literate was one step in a long journey to externalize our minds. Today, we call it the “extended mind” based on a 1998 paper by the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers. Clark and Chalmers ask the simple question: “Where does our mind stop and the rest of the world begin?” The answer, they suggest, is “… active externalism, based on the active role of the environment in driving cognitive processes.”

If our minds extend beyond our skulls, where do they stop? I see at least three answers.

First, the mind extends throughout the rest of the body. As we’ve seen with embodied cognition, we think with our bodies as much as our brains. The physical brain is within our skulls but the mind seems to encompass our entire body.

Second, our minds extend to other people. We know that the people around us affect our behavior. (My mother warned me against running with a fast crowd). It turns out that other people affect our thoughts as well, in direct and physical ways.

The physical mechanism for “thought transfer” is the mirror neuron – “…a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another.” When we see another person do something, our mirror neurons imitate the same behavior. Other people’s actions and moods affect our thoughts. We can – and do –read minds.

The impact of our mirror neurons varies from person to person. The radio show Invisibilia recently profiled a woman who could barely leave her own home so affected was she by other people’s thoughts. (You can find the podcast, called Entanglement, here). The woman was so entangled with others that it’s nearly impossible to draw a line between one mind and another. Perhaps we’re all entangled – each brain is like a synapse in a much larger brain.

Third, we can extend our minds through our external devices. We now have many ways to externalize our memories and, perhaps, even our entire personas. In Neuromancer, the novel that launched the cyberpunk wave, people save their entire personalities and memories on cassette tapes. (How quaint). They extend their minds not only spatially but also into the future.

Neuromancer is about the future, of course. What about today’s devices … and, especially, the world’s most popular device, the smartphone? As we extend our minds through smartphones, do we reduce the “amount of mind” that remains within us? Do smartphones make us dumb? Or, conversely, do they increase the total intelligence availability to humanity – some of it in our brains and bodies and some of it in our external devices?

Good questions. Let’s talk about them tomorrow.

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